Storytelling and Community Planning

A group of people from Red Wing, Minnesota, gather around a table to watch a video and chat.

Guest Blogger: Casey Mathern, Curator of Objects and Exhibits at the Goodhue County Historical Society, a small regional museum located in Red Wing, Minnesota, on the edge of the Driftless Area.

“Be Here: Main Street came to Red Wing shortly after the museum hosted Water/Ways, the Smithsonian Museum On Main Street exhibition and engagement initiative. I served as the project manager, and my colleague James Clinton and I worked closely with the Minnesota Humanities Center during the 16-month-long planning and development phase of our local hosting initiative.

At one planning retreat held at the Humanities Center, we experienced a water tasting presented by Water Bar, the water quality and storytelling project conceived by Shanai Matteson and her partner, known collectively as Works Progress Studio. The experience was fortuitous, as Shanai became the state coordinator for Be Here: Main Street in Minnesota. Shanai reached out to us and other Water/Ways host communities to launch the next phase of the pilot project. Organizing our first workshop as the Local Storytelling Coordinator (LPC) reunited me with Water/Ways partners, collaborators, and introduced me to new faces.

We gathered on a lunch hour in May at the Red Wing Ignite building, a collaborative workspace and community center. After Shanai and I briefly introduced ourselves and the project we gave attendees the floor to introduce themselves and share the possibilities they envisioned for cultural storytelling in Red Wing. Valuable feedback was offered about which platforms and applications would work best for Red Wing. Using an interface that story gatherers are familiar with minimizes the learning curve. After we shared the nation-wide story map from the Be Here website, attendees felt that creating a local “hub” to host Red Wing stories was a better fit for the community’s needs.

Apart from technology and hosting concerns, the biggest question on attendees’ minds–and my own–was how the stories could be used. One attendee reminded us of a series of professionally-produced short films about Red Wing’s architectural landmarks that were created by the local historic preservation commission and hosted on YouTube. The short films illustrated to them how online storytelling can be well done but underutilized–if not forgotten–by residents and visitors alike. In turn, the group agreed that in order for Be Here to be relevant and sustainable to Red Wing, it would need to help address local needs or supplement the work that organizations were already doing.

Hispanic Outreach has an immediate application for Be Here and a pressing community need to get immigrants’ stories recorded and heard.

Members of the organization have been visiting area congregations and sharing their experiences face-to-face in order to build empathy with members of the non-Hispanic majority population of Red Wing. I followed up with staff members who attended the workshop, and they were adamant about storytellers’ confidentiality and the possibility of sharing anonymous stories from the most vulnerable members of the community. Providing English translations will be imperative since many listeners who need to hear stories the most don’t speak Spanish. Students and volunteers already involved with Hispanic Outreach programs will be invited to attend future workshops and gather stories at upcoming community events.

The organization Live Healthy Red Wing also has an immediate application for Be Here as a means of collecting qualitative feedback during the planning process of the Red Wing 2040 initiative, a twenty-year community plan that incorporates residents’ feedback. Live Healthy is involved in this process in order to discover barriers to access in the community.

To celebrate National Night Out on August 1, Live Healthy has already organized volunteer delegates to gather feedback in each of the city’s wards and neighborhoods. They have agreed to partner with Be Here to use this event as an opportunity for story collection. Beyond gathering feedback, staff believe Be Here has potential as a tool for streamlining community planning and for placemaking initiatives with its location-aware capabilities.

Story collection has the potential to enhance the mission-related work that so many Red Wing institutions already do.

Organizations who serve the public as keepers of Red Wing’s cultural heritage and as storytellers themselves–the Goodhue County Historical Society, the Pottery Museum of Red Wing, the Visitor and Convention Bureau, the Sheldon Theatre–host thousands of annual visitors. These visitors in turn share their own reflections and information about the area with staff, but without a means of immediately capturing those stories, this intangible culture cannot be widely shared or materially preserved. Representatives from these organizations, especially volunteers and front desk staff who work with the public the most, could be trained to use the technology in order to gather spontaneous conversations, impressions, and anecdotes. An educator from the Red Wing Environmental Learning Center shared how she could apply digital storytelling as a way for students to record what they’re learning and doing for parents to listen to, and to use as a promotional tool for the center’s programs that would complement existing word of mouth advertising.

The Red Wing Ignite building in Minnesota, a small community building.
The Red Wing Ignite building in Minnesota.

Since the first workshop, Shanai and I have had productive check-ins and I have followed-up with staff from Live Healthy Red Wing and Hispanic Outreach. We agreed that attendees were enthusiastic that the next step needs to be a technology-oriented training workshop that will get at the nuts and bolts of recording stories and making them available online. Our second workshop will be held July 27th at the Red Wing Ignite building, and our priorities will be training participants how to use their smartphones to record and post stories, introducing the SoundCloud page, and learning more about each other’s projects.

Shanai asked me to identify upcoming community and cultural events where we could have a presence and gather stories ourselves. Red Wing hosts annual events like River City Days in August and the Festival of the Arts in October. I learned through Hispanic Outreach that they are organizing the local Hispanic Heritage Festival, approaching on September 17. This event would be a great opportunity for story collection, and organization members were enthusiastic about having a stationary storytelling booth, provided we could organize one in time. We agreed to set up a SoundCloud “hub” that would aggregate stories from partner’s social media accounts using a hashtag. I will likely maintain and curate this account in the short term as the LPC, though I’m interested in co-curation as the project progresses and in the interests of inclusion, sustainability, and succession.”

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